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Impatient with such silence, or as he put it, with “the unwillingness of Jewish scholarship to engage Black-Jewish relations in the colonial period,” Jonathan Schorsch produced his learned and wide-ranging 2004 book .Now a younger generation of historians in North America and the Netherlands (Aviva Ben-Ur, Rachel Franklin, H. Oron, and Wieke Vink among others) are making in-depth studies of the Portuguese Jews of Suriname where slaves are part of the story.By 1634, the young Nassy and his wife, Rebecca Drago—also from a family—were living as Jews in Amsterdam, where they celebrated the birth of their daughter Sara, the first of many children.By then, too, David Nassy had been circumcised and had started the process of education in Jewish belief, law (), and liturgy to which the former crypto-Jews in seventeenth-century Amsterdam were being urgently exhorted by the rabbis.Nassy was both an entrepreneur and a learned practitioner of geography and other sciences, and his hopes for Jewish colonization were both economic and eschatological.*** David Nassy was born in 1612 in Portugal and was known to the Christian world at times by the prestigious name “Cristóvão da Tavera” and at other times as “Joseph de Nunes da Fonseca.” He began his life as a , a Marrano, that is, as a descendant of a Portuguese Jewish family seemingly converted to Christianity, like the father of Baruch Spinoza and like the eminent Amsterdam rabbi Menassah ben Israel.For those still learning the holy tongue, the Bible had been translated into Spanish, and prayer books came off the presses in Spanish or in Spanish and Hebrew columns side by side.Fluent in his native Portuguese and in Spanish, Nassy undoubtedly knew something of the Bible in Latin, but Hebrew was essential for true understanding and prayer.
Not long ago, I was telling a historian friend, himself a specialist on Puerto Rico and the post-emancipation Caribbean, about the Jewish settlers of Suriname, with their sugar and coffee plantations and slaves. I had asked myself that question even though I knew well that in Leviticus [-46], after the Lord had brought forth the people of Israel, his servants, out of the land of Egypt, he had instructed Moses that they were not to buy or sell each other (“And if thy brother be waxen poor with thee, and sell himself unto thee, thou shall not make him to serve as a bondservant”), but only those of the “nations” around them, “children of the strangers that do sojourn among you.” I had asked myself the Passover question even though I recalled the demonstration by David Brion Davis, one of our greatest historians, that acceptance of the institution of slavery—if not of one’s own kind, then of others—was so widespread and enduring that the emergence of abolition movements in the eighteenth century was a “momentous turning point in the evolution of man’s moral perception.” In the past, the Passover conundrum has often been ignored.
I told him that I had asked myself the same question, and that was one of the reasons that back in 1995 I had started to study the Jews of Suriname, including the Nassys, who had been among the founding families of the colony.